Uprooted Presents a Rarely Seen Slice of Japanese American History; Can You Help Identify Subjects in the Photos?

Laborers in sugar beet fields outside of Shelley, Idaho. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073809-E.
Laborers in sugar beet fields outside of Shelley, Idaho. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073809-E.

Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans were moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. In the summer of 1942, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee—best known for his series on Pie Town, New Mexico—documented four such camps in Oregon and Idaho, capturing the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail. Many of these photographs, which capture a little-recorded episode of American history, have never before been exhibited.

On September 27, JANM will open Uprooted: Japanese American Farm Labor Camps During World War II, which showcases a selection of Lee’s images accompanied by his original captions. Curated by Morgen Young in collaboration with the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission (OCHC), the exhibition seeks to contextualize the photographer’s work within the history of the FSA as well as Japanese American camp life in the two states. Uprooted will be on view through January 8, 2017.

For an illuminating look at the origins of this exhibition, read our Discover Nikkei interview with curator Morgen Young. A consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon, Young studied the FSA photography program in graduate school. Working on Uprooted has taught her much about Japanese American history, and she believes that the farm labor camps are an important and under-recognized part of that history. In her own words: “These individuals and families volunteered for agricultural labor—they went into new environments, where they didn’t know how they would be received by the local communities. They contributed directly to the war effort and still have not received the recognition they deserve for their efforts.”

Uprooted is a multi-pronged project that includes the traveling physical exhibition, oral history interviews with subjects in the photographs who were identified by viewers, documentary videos, school curricula, and a comprehensive website. A visit to the website is a great idea both before and after your visit to the exhibition; there, you can learn more about the farm labor camps, review copies of official documents, watch excerpts of oral history videos, view photos of the camps taken by people who lived in them, download lesson plans, and more.

The Twin Falls, Idaho labor camp operated year-round two miles south of the city. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073759-D.
The Twin Falls, Idaho labor camp operated year-round two miles south of the city. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-073759-D.

Help Identify People in the Photographs

When you come to see Uprooted, pay close attention to the people in the photographs. Do you recognize anyone? Efforts to identify the subjects in Russell Lee’s photographs are still ongoing; according to Young, no one in the Idaho camp images has been identified, and the organizers are hoping that LA visitors will be able to help. A photo identification binder will be made available for visitors to write down possible names and/or details about the subjects’ lives.

James Tanaka, a JANM docent, has already come forward to share his story of living in the Twin Falls camp as a child; information about Tanaka and his family is available here.

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